Case study of young QBs: Over-the-top protection of Jordan Love vs. unfair criticism of Justin Fields

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When it comes to the performance of an NFL player, let alone an entire NFL team, comments made in postgame media conferences are unlikely to be of much significance. What a coach tells a player, or a team, in private matters more.

That said, this is the NFL, a game of proverbial inches where control freak coaches try to seize every small advantage they can in every facet of the job. Controlling the noise is one of them.

So maybe it’s worth contrasting how two coaches – Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur and Chicago’s Matt Nagy – handled things recently when discussing their struggling, yet still developing, young quarterbacks, Jordan Love and Justin Fields respectively.

LaFleur spoke Sunday following a 13-7 loss to Kansas City, where Love, his second-year QB, made his first career start due to Aaron Rodgers testing positive for COVID-19.

Love wasn’t great: 19-of-34 for 190 yards, one pick and one touchdown. He lacked an ability to move the offense as the Packers were shut out until 4:56 remained in the game. He didn’t make many plays (2-of-12 on third down), especially against a blitz-heavy Chiefs pass rush. It’s his first start, so his career is hardly over, but still, it wasn’t what anyone wanted.

LaFleur went out of his way to repeatedly take all of the blame for the loss and whatever failures overcame the offense, all while singing Love’s performance even where criticism would have been fair.

  • “This one falls on me, squarely,” LaFleur said. “Just not having a good enough plan to go out there against that pressure, especially with a young quarterback.”

  • “For his first game, going out there in a hostile environment, I thought he handled himself very well. I think it comes down to the play-calls.”

  • “I thought Jordan, I was really proud of the way he played. He hung in there, he was taking hits and delivering the ball. He did a really good job. Ultimately, I have to be better.”

  • “The plan wasn’t good enough … I thought he did a lot of great things.”

  • “If you’re given plays where they are longer developing plays and you can’t protect, it’s kind of hard to throw from your back. And there were a few plays I thought he got out of.

  • "I'm disappointed we didn’t call more plays that would show quicker. That’s on me.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) scrambles against Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones (95)during an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Peter Aiken)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Jordan Love (10) scrambles against Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones (95) on Sunday. (AP Photo/Peter Aiken)

This was LaFleur throwing himself under the bus and trying to protect his young quarterback. At times, it was (understandably) over-the-top, such as when he was asked if the result would have been different had Rodgers played.

“Oh, who knows, guys,” LaFleur said. “... I don’t want that to take away from Jordan’s performance because I think he did a really good job. Ultimately it comes down to myself to have a better plan to handle those pressures and we did not do that tonight.”

That’s a coach willing to take the bullets, protect his players and do his best to avoid controversy.

Now here was Nagy a couple weeks back after rookie QB Justin Fields had a rough performance in the Bears' 38-3 loss to Tampa Bay where Fields took four sacks, threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles.

“It’s making sure his eyes go where our eyes are going,” Nagy said. “We’re trying to make him comfortable and feel good with what we do schematically … we have to continue to stay patient … you can’t lose, that drastically, the turnover battle.”

One of the interceptions came when the Bears' coaching staff told Fields through his headset that Tampa had 12 defenders on the field. That caused the Ohio State product to snap it quickly believing he had a so-called “free play.” He forced a throw that got picked. The problem: Tampa didn’t have 12 men on the field and the turnover stood.

Yet that was blamed on Fields and the nebulous “inexperience” factor.

“As these young quarterbacks go through this development, there’s situations like this that can happen,” Nagy said. “We have techniques within our system to take advantage. And when that happens, if they do have 12 guys on and you catch them obviously it’s a free play.

“If they don’t, and you hear that, that’s where you have to understand that and learn from that,” Nagy continued. “And that’s our job that we are teaching that the right way. Not just him, but everybody.”

So he shouldn’t listen to the coaching in his ear? Or the coaches expected him to be so attuned to the game that he could quickly count the defenders himself and overrule what he was told?

The loss, and Fields’ mistakes, were a result of the quarterback not accepting the coaching fast enough. Even if this was true, what’s the end goal of pointing that out?

Does one help a young quarterback in search of confidence find it?

Does one hurt him?

Does it matter?

Probably not a ton. What a coach conveys to fans via some postgame news conference probably isn’t going to make or break anyone. Then again, in a league with razor thin margins and at a position with such a steep learning curve, it might.

If Rodgers gets cleared from COVID protocols then Love will head back to the bench, at least knowing his coach has his back. Fields, meanwhile, is the Bears' starter, and while he played better last week – just one interception and four sacks – Chicago still lost.

Who knows what he is thinking?

The Bears play Pittsburgh on Monday night, so it’s another chance to play. And for Nagy to decide how to handle the postgame comments.

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